I have been a fan of the author Joe Hill for years now.
I read his unique and effective debut horror novel Heart-Shaped Box first, which led me to his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. I loved both of these works. You won’t read reviews of either here because this was all before I began this blog in December 2015. I suppose I could write retroactive reviews, but it’s just not the same, you know? I will re-read them someday, if I live long enough, and maybe I’ll write reviews then.
Meanwhile, here’s the Reader’s Digest review for both: Loved ’em.
I knew that Hill’s second novel, Horns, existed, but didn’t get around to reading it until years after it was published. It was also made into a movie that I’ve never seen. I reviewed the novel earlier this year. It was a lukewarm review that honestly reflected my feelings about Hill’s sophomore effort. The things I liked about the book, I liked a lot. The things I didn’t like were mostly structural, and an inconsistency in the narrative that tended to remove me from the fictive dream as I was reading it.
I didn’t hate the book. I gave it a grade of B. Like I said earlier, lukewarm.
I used the term magical realism during this review. I realize now that this is an important element of Hill’s fiction. Everything I’ve read (or seen) of Hill’s fiction seems to shout: “This is the real world, the one we all live in, only with some extra magical elements you just need to accept and move forward.”
I was aware that the graphic novel Locke & Key, written by Hill, existed, but I’ve never read it. I watched the first season of the Netflix series by the same name. Here’s another lukewarm review, if you care to read it. The streaming series had the same magical realism hallmarks as Hill’s other stuff.
And then, NOS4A2. I haven’t read the book, although it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I will read it someday. I could’ve sworn that I had a copy of the novel, but I couldn’t find it after searching the library closet (a deep walk-in closet in our office that was lined with bookshelves when we bought the house). I do have a copy of The Fireman, which was sent to me by my mother, who still does that occasionally. I haven’t read it yet either, but it’s on the list.
Since I’ve never read the novel, I’ve never compared the AMC series NOS4A2 to the source material. I did watch the first season of the series and I liked it quite a bit. Here’s the not-lukewarm review if you care to read it.
Since I’m not familiar with the novel, I believe that I’m able to judge the merits of the television series at least somewhat objectively. I remain blissfully unaware where the television story deviates from the novel, although I know from reading other reviews that it does. I accept, as a fundamental truth, that television and novels are different storytelling media, and that some changes are necessary. But, it’s easier to forgive those changes when you don’t know what they are.
I mentioned reading other reviews. That’s something I never do prior to watching a series, because I know how easy it is to let spoilers slip. But, sometimes I will read the reviews after the fact, just to see what others think about it. I looked at only a handful of reviews for Season 2, and found that I disagreed both with those reviewers who hated the season and with those who loved it. No surprise here: I guess my response was again—let’s say it together—lukewarm.
The reviews I did read all seemed to think that Season 2 was better than Season 1. I emphatically disagree with this statement.
I was captured in the spell of the first season and thought that the worldbuilding taking place was a thing of beauty.
I accepted the premise of Strong Creatives able to create their own “Inscapes” with the use of a personal totem or fetish, called a “knife.” Vic McQueen’s (Ashleigh Cummings) inscape was a rickety, covered wooden bridge—known as The Shorter Way—that would magically lead her to anything she was trying to find, and her knife was the dirt bike she rebuilt with her father. I identified with the teenaged Vic’s dreams of attending art school and escaping what seems to be her dead-end world of volatile relationships and alcoholism and endless class struggle. Maggie Smith (Jakhara Smith) is another Strong Creative destined to be linked to Vic, whose knife is a bag of Scrabble tiles which acts a lot like a Magic 8 Ball, answering any questions asked, truthfully. Maggie was troubled as well, a lesbian and an addict, who suffered seizures whenever she used her powers.
After accepting the existence of “good” Strong Creatives, it wasn’t such a leap to a “bad” Strong Creative such as Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), who drives around in a Rolls-Royce Wraith and kidnaps children he believes are being neglected by their parents and takes them to Christmasland, a theme park that exists primarily within Manx’s own mind.
The story of the first season was built in layers that made the confrontation between opposing factions seem predestined. Bing Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) was a friend of Vic McQueen’s who worked as a janitor at her high school. She frequently traded comic books with him. The first season revealed that Bing had dark secrets of his own, a troubled past, and it was no surprise that he would be seduced into becoming Manx’s Igor with promises of going to Christmasland.
The first season ended with Charlie Manx’s defeat, after Vic torched the Wraith, which is Manx’s own knife and seems more than a little sentient, like Christine, a car created by Joe Hill’s author father. In many ways, the story felt complete.
Only, with a second season already in the works, we knew the story wasn’t over. Like most of the classic horror monsters, Charlie Manx was required to come back to life for there to be a story of any kind. Of course, he does, with the ever-faithful Bing’s help. Bing rebuilds the Wraith and Charlie comes back in a gory sequence worthy of a Hollywood splatter movie.
Eight years have passed in-story. Vic McQueen is in a relationship with Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon), the nerdy black biker who helped her at the end of Season 1. At the end of the first season, Vic was pregnant with Craig’s (Dalton Harrod) child. Craig had to sacrifice himself so that Vic could live (he seems to be haunting the Wraith this season, so I guess that’s a thing). Craig and Vic’s son (Jason David), whose name is a living Easter Egg—Bruce Wayne McQueen—is now around eight years old, I suppose. Around the age that Charlie Manx likes to get ’em, it seems, especially when he thinks a child has bad parents.
In truth, Vic McQueen is kind of a bad parent. She seems to have gotten the alcoholism bug from her father Chris (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who also appears in this season. She accidentally burned down their home as well, and she frequently forgets things like picking her son up from school. Her experience with Charlie Manx has left her with a lot of trauma and PTSD. She seems to be the only character not surprised when Charlie returns.
Vic and Maggie team up again and head for Christmasland after Wayne is kidnapped by Manx. The story is once again brought to what seems to be a definitive end. Now that we know the series has been cancelled by AMC, this was the end of the story, even though it was beginning to look like the groundwork for Season 3 was being laid with a couple of the younger characters. Bruce Wayne McQueen and Millie Manx (Mattea Conforti) seem poised to do something stupid in a new story arc. Something we’ll never get to see now.
There are ten episodes in the season. We dig a little deeper into the origin story of Charlie Manx, but it doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. In the process, we learn that Millie is his actual daughter and that Manx’s inscape holds more examples of his twisted mind than just Christmasland. Maggie is also in a committed relationship with an FBI agent. And, we learn that there are other Strong Creatives out there in the world, and even meet a couple of them. This part of the series feels very American Gods to me. It’s the quiet assertion that the world normal people experience is only the visible portion of an iceberg that is infinitely more massive and more weird.
While I found some of the supernatural laws of the NOS4A2 universe to be fascinating, I often thought, while I was watching this season, that the show itself hinted at stories that were a lot more interesting than the one I was watching.
So, a lukewarm review, as promised.
I’m not going to tell you not to watch this final season of the series. It has some great moments, and all of the actors—young and old—were doing the best they could with the material they were given. Watching it won’t be much of a disappointment to you, if you go into it with suitably lowered expectations.
I’m glad, in a subdued sort of way, that the series was cancelled. The show wouldn’t be as good without Zachary Quinto, and if they brought his character back again, I wouldn’t have watched it anyway. Enough is enough.
Firewater’s Christmas-Obsessed-Psychic-Vampires Report Card: B
This blog is my inscape. My knife is my computer.